The Richmond Spy Network

Elizabeth Van Lew was born in Richmond, VA in 1818 to Quaker parents. She was opposed to slavery even though her father owned slaves. When her father died when she was 25, she convinced her mother to free the slaves they owned. Elizabeth and her brother used their inheritance to buy the freedom of other slaves, especially those whose families were due to be sold to different owners.

When the Civil War began, Elizabeth and her mother cared for wounded soldiers. She used these visits with soldiers to gain information on the Confederate military. She would then send this information to Union leaders in hollow eggs.

Elizabeth also created a spy network within the Confederate military to obtain additional information. She was able to place one of the slaves she freed to work in the White House of the Confederate States. This led to additional vital information.

When the Civil War was over, Elizabeth was ostracized by her friends in Richmond. In honor of her contributions, Ulysses Grant appointed her Postmaster of Richmond when he became President. She was able to modernize the Postal Service and began desegregating the workforce. She hired a number of African Americans at the same pay and benefits as white employees. She was replaced as Postmaster when Grant left office. She had exhausted her funds supporting the Union war effort, and her life in Richmond became increasingly unbearable. She was never able to gain reimbursement from the U.S. Government for her efforts. When she died, relatives of a Union soldier who she supported paid for her tombstone.

Hidden heroes often make a great sacrifice for what they believe in. Even their successes may be the subject of jealousy and resentment. In Elizabeth’s case, what should have been triumphant later years of her life became a very lonely existence. But what matters to hidden heroes is that they know what they accomplished.

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“You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.” – Ulysses Grant speaking of the accomplishments of Elizabeth Van Lew

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